A Perfect Union of Contrary Things

By Sarah Jensen with Maynard James Keenan

A_Perfect_UnionRebecca referred obliquely to this book in her comment to my previous review, saying that she guessed I had lost all perspective of writing quality while in the middle of this book. We all have books that we are too embarrassed to review on this site, and thus admit to reading. I was torn about this one, but I think it is time for me to admit my love for Tool. I am a 40-year-old, mild-mannered woman, and yet I just love Tool’s music. I try to ignore the general Tool fanbase as much as possible, and honestly I’m super conflicted about frontman Maynard James Keenan – I have so much admiration for his music, but every time he stops singing and starts talking, my admiration steadily falls.

Still, when Keenan partnered his long-time friend Sarah Jensen on an official biography, I was certainly interested (though still a bit embarrassed).

The Forward opens with “Maynard James Keenan is a mysterious fountain of constant creation. From his soul-searching lyrics, and extraordinary music in multiple bands to his astoundingly delicious wine, he has permeated our culture like no other artist. He straddles guises and genres and makes us wonder what could fuel such original superhuman output.”

Uh oh, I thought.

Skipped the rest of the Forward to the Prologue: “He sings of the fire’s spirit, of the taste of ashes on the tongue, of the truth on the other side of the mirror. He sings of the desert that is no desert place but a land breathing, flying, crawling, dying—alive with spirits of ancestors and the untold tales of children to come.”

Oh, nooo.

It gets very slightly better once it settles into a more linear description of Keenan’s life, but it is still fawning to a degree that I haven’t ever read before. The majority of the book is written by Jensen, with the occasional pull-quote from Keenan. The first such quote was a bit of a relief from the sycophancy by sole virtue of its astonishing tedium. As a young child watching his dad garden:

I remember thinking, “OK, if I crawl up in the window and if I can get this screen open, I can get to that tree and climb down to help him.” I could see that what he was doing was taking a while. He seemed to be struggling to get the shovel into the dirt.

I tried to get up on the ledge of the window and realized, “Nah, there’s no way I’m going to be able to get from the window ledge to that tree safely.” I could tell the distance from the window to the tree was too far, so I got back out of the window and just watched my dad. But I wanted so much to help.

So, Keenan watched his dad gardening, thought about climbing a tree, and then decided not to. Seriously, imagine that you are at a party, and someone you don’t know that well tells you that story – did you just feel your eyes glaze over?

I never fully got over the amateur quality of the writing itself, but once I’d settled down a bit, I ran across another oddity: there’s a surprisingly lack of personal information in here, for a book written by a long-term friend with the help of the subject itself. It reads as though Jensen had little to no access to the other people in Keenan’s life, and very little access to Keenan himself. She relies on phrases like “one imagines…” and “could have been…” which are much more common in distant-past histories, where there isn’t much documentation. It is really odd in a book about someone in his 50s, with presumably plenty of still-living family and friends.

So, Jensen appears to know very little about Keenan’s early life, and is not subtle with conjecture, which makes the whole early part of the book come across as very impersonal. Later, the hyperbole becomes so extensive that it casts doubts on everything — even known facts of Keenan’s life sound like conjecture in Jensen’s voice. It makes the book a very unsettling read, almost like a super-boring Rashomon, where no narrator can be trusted.

She’s not doing Keenan any favors with this, either. The book spends more time on how good he looked in his military dress uniform than it does on his roommate who committed suicide. It makes him come across as extremely egotistical at best, and a bit psychotic at worst.

The last few chapters weren’t quite as painful. I may have been finally broken down by the terrible writing, so that I was no longer so sensitive to it. They also left only about a hundred pages for A Perfect Circle, Puscifer, and his vineyard in Arizona, so they had to move a faster pace. In fact, 10,000 Days, his most personal album, about the death of his mother, warrants only a few sentences in passing, and I began to formulate a theory.

Keenan seems like a very private person with clear boundaries between himself and his perceived celebrity, which is his prerogative, of course, but why then contribute to a biography? I kept wondering what on earth had inspired him to collaborate on this, if he was so disinclined to share personal details, and my best guess is it is a favor to an old friend, though I’m not sure how good a favor a book such as this is.

A quote toward the end encapsulated what bothered me most about the book far better than I was able to articulate:

“At the time, it looked like misspent time, like so many things he did,” Jack Olsen would remember. “In retrospect, of course, it all seems to line up beautifully toward what eventually happened.”*

Because Keenan has found such success in multiple endeavors, the authors describe every choice he made throughout his life as evidence of this trajectory. There are no missteps made or doubts felt or backtracking needed; the end proves the way, I guess, and no additional reflection is needed. Why does this book exist?

Instead of this book, can I recommend one of my favorite podcasts? I Don’t Even Own a Television is hosted by J.W. Friedman and Chris Collision, who do in fact own televisions but also read a lot of bad books, which they then hilariously review. Friedman is also a musician who I first heard doing the weather on the first episode of “Welcome to Nightvale”. Because of their interest in music, they review a lot of biographies of musicians, and I am very much hoping they get around to this one eventually.

*98% of the quotes in this book are described with the word would – “would remember,” “would recall,” “would reflect” – and it drove me completely batty! Is this remembrance going to happen in the future? Is it an ongoing thing? It shows up hundreds of times in this book, and it is weird as hell!

4 comments on “A Perfect Union of Contrary Things

  1. Rebecca says:

    Hahahaha! There is just something so hilarious about a well-reasoned bad review. But congratulations on forcing your way through the whole thing

  2. Jack Olsen says:

    I’m pretty sure I’m that Jack Olsen. 🙂

    • Anna says:

      Oh, wonderful! I got a bit snarky in the overall review, but I really did appreciate your quote, because it helped me get over some more personal issues I had with the book, or at least see them more clearly.

      For what it is worth, it hasn’t affected my enjoyment of Keenan’s work at all – I’ve been recently diving into more of the Puscifer songs that I’d overlooked before.

  3. Anna says:

    Oh, man, I just got around to listening to Marc Maron’s interview with Keenan on his WTF Podcast, and whole chunks of this book are almost word-for-word in the book. Keenan mentions working on the book in the podcast, so either he tells the same stories in the same way to people, or Marc Maron should be heavily credited in the book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s